Which is stronger, a slab of asphalt or a flower? This snowplant (Sarcodes sanguinea) seems to be winning the contest here at the edge of a volleyball court in the northern Sierra Nevada. Few things are stronger than a determined mass of turgid, growing plant cells!
Snowplants were popping out all over the place last weekend at Berkeley Echo Lake Camp, just off US 50 near Echo Summit, on the southwest edge of the Tahoe Basin.
Why is it all red? Sarcodes is an achlorophyllous epiparisite. It can’t photosynthesize. It obtains nutrients by parisitizing the mycorrhizal fungi that live among the roots of conifers. The mycorrhizal symbiosis is mutualistic—beneficial to both the fungi and the conifers. The conifers provide carbon to the fungus, and the fungus enhances nutrient and water uptake in the conifers. But the snowplant is a “cheater” that takes nutrients away from the mycorrhizal system, while offering no benefits in return.
Sarcodes is also Ericaceous—a member of the heath family (Ericaceae), along with blueberries, manzanitas, heathers, azaleas, and more. Snowplants are in the subfamily Monotropoideae, which includes several other charismatic non-photosynthetic mycoheterotrophs, like the Indian-pipe (Monotropa) and pine drops (Pterospora).
Snowplant habitat, as indicated by these tent cabins overlooking Lake Tahoe, is also prime summer vacation habitat!